Citing Porn Watcher, VA Secretary Begs Congress for More Firing Authority

VA Secretary David Shulkin said it is unacceptable that the department has to wait 30 days to act on a proposed removal. VA Secretary David Shulkin said it is unacceptable that the department has to wait 30 days to act on a proposed removal. Cliff Owen/AP

The Veterans Affairs Department should be able to fire any employee caught watching pornography at work immediately, according to its recently sworn in secretary.

The request comes after a Houston-based medical center employee was found, after a “through [sic] internal review,” to have viewed pornography while with a patient. The employee is currently on paid administrative leave, but has not yet been fired as VA is required by law to provide 30 days of notice to its workers before terminating them. VA Secretary David Shulkin said that law, which governs the entire federal workforce, must change.

“This is an example of why we need accountability legislation as soon as possible,” Shulkin said. “It’s unacceptable that VA has to wait 30 days to act on a proposed removal.”

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In a statement, the department complained that it must continue to pay the accused porn-watcher throughout the removal process. VA was able to place the employee on administrative leave after determining the individual was a “potential danger to veterans.”

Shulkin praised a House-backed bill that would expedite the firing process, shrinking the notice period to 10 days. Employees would maintain appeal rights to the Merit Systems Protection Board and U.S. Court of Federal Claims. It would eliminate the ability of union-represented employees to go through the grievance process, which reform advocates have complained takes an average of 350 days.

“Current legislation in Congress reduces the amount of time we have to wait before taking action,” Shulkin said. “I look forward to working with both the Senate and the House to ensure final legislation gives us the flexibility we need.”

Supporters of the bill -- the VA Accountability First Act -- took Shulkin’s comments as a welcome sign.

“The time for talking about accountability is over,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn, who chairs the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. “This situation underscores the need for Congress to get VA accountability legislation to President Trump's desk, and I thank Secretary Shulkin for making this a top priority.”

Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group that has for years called on Congress to change the disciplinary procedures at VA, said Shulkin’s response marked “a new era at the VA.”

“It is incredibly refreshing to see Dr. Shulkin emphatically calling for strong accountability measures at the VA,” said Dan Caldwell, CVA’s policy director.” Under the previous administration, the secretaries spent most of their time denying that problems within the department existed. By acknowledging the need for systemic reform, Secretary Shulkin has taken a bold and courageous step in helping veterans push Congress to pass meaningful accountability legislation.”

Democrats so far have declined to champion the measure, saying the bill goes too far in limiting due process rights for employees and the role of unions at the department. Just 10 Democrats voted to pass the legislation and three Republicans voted against it. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 230,000 VA employees, called the legislation “a union-busting bill, plain and simple.”

A spokeswoman for Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, recently told Government Executive the senator is still “exploring options” for a bill that can pass the Senate. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has introduced companion legislation for Roe’s House-backed measure, which has yet to receive any action. Isakson himself said he is committed to working with his House colleagues and Democrats on his committee to move accountability legislation forward.

“I'm committed to moving legislation that gives Secretary Shulkin the tools to discipline bad employees,” Isakson said. “Accountability reform is a top priority.” The senator authored bipartisan legislation in the last Congress to expedite the firing process at VA, but it stalled in the Senate after clearing his committee.

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